Leading Article: Rule by quango

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WHEN THE Conservatives came to power in 1979, they promised to abolish hundreds of quangos. So they did, only to replace them with hundreds more, armed with larger budgets and greater powers. The new quangocracy, described by our reporters on page 19, is different from the old in several respects. First, it has acquired many executive powers that were previously exercised by locally elected councils. Second, the membership of the various councils, boards and authorities is almost entirely within the gift of ministers. Third, they reflect a new philosophy of government in which public bodies are accountable only through the market. Even the school curriculum becomes a 'service' which is 'delivered' to 'customers' as though it were a sack of potatoes.

But schools and hospitals are not potatoes. Health care is distributed according to need, not customer demand. Parents can choose a school but cannot ask for the curriculum to be changed or for a shoddy year's education to be replaced.

So priorities in public services are still set mainly by those who run them, and calling parents, passengers or patients 'customers' does not change that. Local political control had its imperfections, as did the corporate representation of the 1970s. But either is preferable to the national governing party having the power to choose all the people who make decisions. That way lies the one- party state, in which membership of the Conservative Party - or at least acceptance of its principles - becomes as essential to advancement as membership of the Communist Party in the old Soviet Union.